Young and Hungry

Urban to Offer Meats Fresh from the Smoker on Saturday

I've had a number of barbecue mentors over the years, but none more influential than Robb Walsh, the author of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook. He once told me—well, he repeatedly told me, but that's Walsh—that you have to hit a barbecue joint as soon as it opens, so that the meats come straight out of the smoker. Or as close to that as you can get.

For some reason, it took me a long time to grasp that concept, probably because I had tasted great barbecue at all hours in Texas.

But then I came to D.C., where timing is practically everything if you want a half-decent plate of barbecue. Then again, even if you hit a joint at the right time around here, it's still no guarantee that you'll get good 'cue. Of course that was before Urban Bar-B-Que installed its new Southern Pride unit and started taking a lean, Texas-style approach to smoking meats. The Rockville operation has immediately vaulted to the top of the barbecue heap in the area.

But even Urban has to fret about holding times for its smoked meats, which is why owners Lee Howard and David Calkins have decided to launch a "straight from the smoker" special. This Saturday, from 9 to 11 a.m., the owners will be pulling ribs, briskets, sausage, and pork from the smoker and selling 'em all for $12 a pound. You can eat your smoked meats with borracho beans, white bread, pickled veggies, and tortillas.

"I guarantee that even if we don't get a lot of people tomorrow, we won't give up on the idea," says Calkins. Urban, he adds, is committed to doing at least four weeks of this Saturday, straight from the smoker special.

But why make Calkins sweat? Trust me, you've never had breakfast until you've had barbecue straight from the smoker.

Urban Bar-B-Que, 2007 Chapman Ave., Rockville, (240) 290-4827

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • An Briosca Mor

    This may be a dumb question, but why can't they just stagger the time they put the meat into the smoker so that some comes out fresh at lunch time and some comes out fresh at dinner time?

  • Tim Carman

    An Briosca Mor;

    Not a dumb question. The reason has to do with economics and time. Brisket and pork butts take 12 hours or longer to smoke. So if you throw them into the smoker at 9 p.m., they won't be ready until 9 a.m. the following morning. To stagger the times, you'd need to have employees loading the smoker at, say, 10 p.m., midnight, 2 a.m. and so on. With the current approach, a BBQ joint can throw the meats in at night, and come back in the morning. It's easier and requires less employees (and therefore expense).

  • An Briosca Mor

    How many employees does it take to throw some hunks of meat into a smoker anyway? Seems like they could hire someone at minimum wage to spend the night in the restaurant and load the smoker between naps. As a bonus the guy could pull the fire alarm if something went wrong. Having the premises tended all night might bring their insurance rate down a bit too. I think if I was spending 20 grand on a piece of equipment I wouldn't be averse to spending a few bucks more to make sure its product got shown in the best possible light.

    Good thing bakeries aren't shy about having their employees show up in the middle of the night so they can deliver a fresh product when the customer wants it...

  • Capital Spice

    There's a second issue with staggering the loading times. Every time you open the smoker doors, you let smoke out and you impact the temperature inside the smoker (even if minimally). Doing so repeatedly over the course of smoking results in uneven cooking, poor fat distribution throughout the meat, and longer cooking times.

    Ideally when cooking with a smoker you want to bring it up to temperature, put in the meat, and then leave it alone until it's just about ready.

    I'm sure smoking on a commercial scale is less subject to the vagaries of temperature and smoke loss than doing it at home is, but if I were running a barbecue joint I'd want to keep my smoker closed as much as possible anyway.

  • Tim Carman

    An Briosca Mor;

    I know you don't mean to equate a skilled pitmaster or mistress with some meat-slinging minimum wage worker. These people take years to perfect their craft. You don't just train someone overnight to work a smoker, like you would some deep-fryer teenager at McDonald's.

  • DanielK

    Let's see, it's almost time for the meat to hit the smoker. Can't wait for breakfast!

  • HCC

    Awesome, I'll be back next week too.

  • NF

    I went this morning and it was awesome. The brisket was delicious and tasty as hell but the real treat is the pork butt. SO MUCH flavor in that tender crispy and crispy skin. But this Texan will make that trip any time I have a hankering for quality BBQ. Just had some leftover sausage for dinner and I am craving another round. Oh, and the dudes who run the place are pretty damn cool as well. I do wish there was a way to do the "straight from the smoker" at regular lunch hours though...

    Thanks for the tip Tim! Next up, Teddy's roti.

  • An Briosca Mor

    Okay, so maybe the minimum-wage comment was out of line. But still, we are talking about one additional employee, right? Seems to me that if they're spending big money on a smoker it's because they want to produce a better product. Why undermine that by not hiring and training someone to use that smoker on a work shift that would lead to the best product being made available at a time that most customers would want to purchase it? If it takes a while to train a pitmaster, then why aren't the owners willing to pull the late shift themselves for whatever time it might take to train someone to do the job for them up to their standards? Seems to me that with their current attitude they've decided they'd rather train the entire world to start eating barbecue for breakfast. Good luck with that.

  • Tim Carman

    I spoke more to David Calkins about this issue over the weekend. It's not just about labor. It's also about safety issues, optimal smoker conditions, and the fact that they have only one smoker. First of all, if you put raw meats into a smoker that already has partially cooked beef or pork into it, you could create cross-contamination issues, with raw fat dripping onto other meats, Calkins said. He also said he didn't like to open his smoker once he put the meats into them; you lose a lot of smoke. And finally, he said you can't mix meats other than brisket and pork butts. So once you put the brisket and pork butts on at 9, you need to leave them there til the next morning. Chicken, ribs, and sausage have to be cooked for different times and at different temperatures. Put it all together, and it makes a staggered system a little hard with only one smoker.

  • An Briosca Mor

    Okay. But if that's the case, why load the smoker at 9 pm for perfect meat at 9 am? Why not instead load it at 11 pm or midnight for perfect meat at lunch service, or at 5-6 am for perfect meat at dinner service? How quick is the drop-off in quality once the meat goes under the warming lamp? Is 2-3 hour old brisket that much worse than fresh out of the smoker brisket? Is 8 hour old brisket at dinner that much worse than 3 hour old brisket at lunch? Seems to me that if fresh out of the smoker brisket is really such a life-altering experience they would want to offer it at at least one of their main meal services.

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